By Charles Bevier | Photos by Joseph Hilliard
By day, they’re engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, but in their off-hours, Kate Remley and Dylan Williams are such passionate history buffs that they chose a restored train car as the site for their wedding ceremony. So perhaps it was fate that brought their house-hunting journey to one of the most historic homes in Boulder, Colorado.
“We spent quite a few months not finding anything that we really liked,” recalls Kate. “One evening we visited a house for sale and decided it wasn’t what we were looking for. So we decided to go for a walk. We walked up to what is now our home and saw the ‘For Sale’ sign and thought, ‘Well, this is just lovely.’”
Taking in the graceful lines of the Gothic Revival—its lacy trim, high arched windows, and imposing mansard tower—Kate and Dylan were immediately smitten. “It was more than we wanted to spend, but we made it work,” recalls Kate.
Dylan says he was drawn to the home’s history. “When they built this home, Boulder was a frontier town,” he observes. “What they were able to accomplish in construction during that time is just extraordinary. They set up their own horse-drawn mill in the backyard. All the carpentry and millwork was cut by hand, right on the site.”
The house was built by Willamette Arnett in 1877. His father, Anthony, who emigrated from France in 1859, amassed a fortune from freight, mining, and real estate ventures. He owned the Boulder House and Brainard Hotel. He also donated land and money to help build the University of Colorado.
When Willamette came of age, he was a wealthy man—and he liked to make a point of it by wearing $10 gold pieces instead of buttons on his tailored suits. In a time when most couldn’t afford many pairs of socks, Willamette wore wool socks on the outside of his shoes as he stalked the dusty streets—just to prove that he could. Few laughed openly at his wardrobe choices, however, since he enjoyed a fierce reputation for combat. “He was known as Fightin’ Will, because he liked to pick fights,” says Kate. “He definitely was an eccentric.”
When Fightin’ Will set out to build himself a home near the banks of Boulder Creek, he hired a 27-year-old British architect named George E. King. Despite his youth, King was well-traveled and well-trained in design. In addition to his own small but elegant cottage in nearby Leadville, King’s lengthy resume also boasted the Leadville Post Office, the Tabor Grand Hotel, Denver’s Central High School, and the Delaware Hotel.
With King’s design skills and Fightin’ Will’s deep pockets, the two created a Gothic Revival with Second Empire overtones. Not large by today’s standards at only 1,800 square feet, it was lavish for the times, costing $4,000 to build—more than twice the price of surrounding homes. Also commissioned was an ornate cast iron fence, which still encircles the home. Manufactured by a Pittsburgh company, the fence was shipped by rail to Omaha, Nebraska, then traveled by oxcart to Boulder. The fence cost another $1,500—more than a third of the cost of the house.
Fightin’ Will didn’t live out his golden years in his fancy house. He sought adventure in the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska, dying there in 1900. The Victorian was purchased by Eliza Fullen in 1914, and remained in her family until it was bought at public auction by Historic Boulder in 1993.
From the start, Kate and Dylan were united in their motivation to return the home to the days of horse and carriage. “We definitely wanted to restore rather than renovate,” Kate says. “We’re installing modern conveniences, but doing it such a way that you really get a sense of how it was to live when Boulder was a frontier town.”
Continuing the restoration started by Historic Boulder, who had done some basic rewiring and other small upgrades, the couple diligently researched old photos and historical documents. An 1877 newspaper account of the construction of the home, unearthed in the attic of the tower, provided detailed descriptions of each room and its furnishings, including how the tower was surmounted by gilded horses. The couple has used these clues to restore the home to the owner’s original vision.
They started with the flooring on the first story. After removing carpeting and a layer of linoleum, Kate and Dylan were delighted to discover the original wood floors, which they refinished. “The wood is this gorgeous, old-growth spruce with a really tight grain. It was our first discovery, and it was really exciting,” Kate says.
A two-day-long blizzard in 2005 dictated the next project: storm windows to increase energy efficiency. “We had two weeks of 10-degree weather. Even with the boiler running 24-7, it never got above 55 degrees. They closed our work for two weeks, so we set up in the yard and starting building windows,” recalls Kate. “We installed new weatherstripping and a combination boiler/hot-water heater. That warmed things up considerably.”
They turned their attention to the 1950s-era kitchen next. Their goal was to re-create an 1880s scullery. They removed drywall to expose brick, and, with the help of local carpenter Dean Mirabassi, peeled back two false ceilings to reveal the original wood-paneled ceiling (once damaged by fire), increasing the height of the room from 8′ to 12′. They dismantled and rebuilt the ceiling, salvaging and reusing as much of the original wood as possible. Instead of kitchen cabinets, antique hutches and sideboards now house their plates, flatware, and cooking implements. A restored vintage stove, outfitted with electric burners, completes the time-travel transformation.
The couple continued their detective work outside the house. The heavily ornamented stables, described in newspaper articles, are no more. But an original tack house remains—now used as a storage shed—with room for gear on one side and the other devoted to what was once a privy. A well and cistern were reportedly once on the grounds of the double-lot site, but not even ground-penetrating radar, wielded by a local university history professor, has been able to reveal their location.
Digging in the garden one day, Dylan made a discovery—a small piece of slate. Knowing slate isn’t native to Colorado, he played a hunch. The couple ran it through the dishwasher, and discovered it was pierced with one small, perfect circular hole. “I knew immediately it must have come from the roof,” Dylan says.
Indeed, when Dylan located an old photo of the home in the Boulder Carnegie historical library, he discovered that the mansard tower, since covered in asphalt shingles, had once been wreathed in decorative slate. Determined to restore it, Kate combed the gardens for more samples. Her CSI-like work paid off, yielding multiple examples of three slate colors.
“We started sending samples around to different slate producers,” Dylan says. It soon became clear that one form of slate they’d found, called “unfading red,” is extremely rare, costing three times more than other kinds of slate. They also discovered that particular color was limited to one valley that runs from Pennsylvania to Vermont. “We went to the oldest slate producer in that valley,” says Dylan, “and that’s where we found it.”
Change in Plans
Installing slate is a specialty that few roofers have experience with. Kate and Dylan discovered that even contractors who had the know-how found the tower dimensions difficult to work with. Some proposed extensive scaffolding; others, cranes. Prices for installing the slate tile on the relatively small tower ranged as high as $40,000.
Finally, the couple located Octavio Sergio Libman, owner of Sergio’s Roofing. “Sergio agreed to do it for $12,000. He was an honest guy who really understood our desire to do this right,” Dylan recalls. But then tragedy struck: Two carjackers shot Sergio to death when stealing his gray Porsche in December 2006.
Rocked by the news, the couple held off on the project. Dylan spent the winter reading Joseph Jenkins’ The Slate Roof Bible. By spring, he had decided to tackle the project himself. “I used to be a rock climber, so heights don’t bother me,” he says. It took him all summer, working at night and on weekends, painstakingly installing each tile. “Being up on that tower, dangling from a rope and harness, realizing that people did it this way in 1877, only reinforced my connection to the house and the past.”
Future restoration plans include returning the pantry to the original porch near the scullery and restoring the bedrooms on the second floor. “We’re trying to make it like a living museum,” Kate says. “It’s rewarding to re-create how these people lived back in the 1880s,” Dylan adds. “Our work on the home will long outlast us, which is really gratifying.”
Online Exclusive: Share your house’s secrets in our special discussion forum.Published in: Old-House Journal February/March 2011